Take America Back

March 18, 2019

It is painful to see the forces of hate killing men, women and children on many continents and here in many states, in schools and public places, taking apart the work of what we have been honoring as the greatest American generation who spilt their blood for the America they loved. It is painful and frightening to see the effort of the alt-Wrong to rip apart the free world that this country took the lead in creating. It’s painful to see terrorists crediting an American president as their inspiration for murder.

When I was a small boy, American men were fighting, and dying, in the Pacific, Africa, Italy and, after the landing in Normandy, through France and Germany. They were struggling for freedom, democracy and brotherhood. As the war ended, Truman sent Franklin Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, to the UN. Truman sent her there to make clear to the world the depth of America’s commitment to building a robust and sustainable free world. She chaired the seventeen-­member UN Commission on Human Rights and led that body in the development of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You could have drawn much of it from our own Constitution. These were American ideals on the world stage.

In 1948, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Vinson held racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional. Then in 1952 the NAACP brought five cases to the Supreme Court challenging segregation and seeking to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that had upheld segregation in 1896. The Truman Administration told the Court that the US was being attacked around the globe because of segregation and that segregation complicated American foreign policy. Obviously important, the case was reargued after President Eisenhower took office and Chief Justice Vinson had died. Eisenhower’s Justice Department submitted its own brief to the Court, and it underscored the arguments of the Truman Administration that this country needed to end segregation. The Supreme Court agreed; in Brown and a series of cases it made clear that American government could make no distinction of race, creed or heritage in its treatment of Americans.

Americans cheered Brown and made clear it was a popular decision. We believed what they said in the Declaration, that “all men are created equal.” Americans fought a Civil War over that principle. By the time of Brown, this country had embraced people like Jesse Owens, Marion Anderson, and Ralph Bunche among many others. With some obvious and vocal exceptions, Americans embraced the end of segregation. That is the America embraced the world over, admired for its principles and its heart. That is the America that took all of us to its heart regardless of which country our ancestors came from, which faith they brought. That is the country that our ancestors embraced with both love and pride, the America they wanted to be part of and contribute to. That is the America they wanted for us. That is the America we need to take back.

An America with neither mind nor heart clearly needs a trip to see a Wizard of Oz. An America with a man in a position of power who gloats that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” with impunity is an America which actually does need to deport someone, and to wall out the orange-haired imposter before he corrupts our genetic inheritance.

— A version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 19, 2019.


What should we expect of law, judges and judicial nominees

April 8, 2017

People often ask me whether something is constitutional. I often respond by asking what they mean. Our Constitution is only as good as the people handling it. Beyond that it’s a piece of paper, that bends, folds and tears. The Founding Fathers often referred to constitutional language as parchment barriers.

All law is about prediction. What will the Court, or a judgment do and will the president or the governors enforce what they decree? The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments became meaningless for decades after President Hayes removed the troops from the former Confederate states. Brown really meant something when Eisenhower sent the troops to Little Rock.

Sure, I think the Constitution should mean more; it should protects us. But I have only the power of argument. When I argue in the courts, I don’t just tell them what I think is right – I argue in ways I think will influence the court I am addressing. I learned that lesson years ago after writing a brief on behalf of several political scientists to explain an aspect of the 1st Amendment. We were only appearing as friends of the court, but our views carried the day on the Court of Appeals. One of the judges wrote that his reasons were well stated in our brief. Of course I thought that judge was a genius. But though we won on the Supreme Court, the grounds of victory had nothing to do with our brief. Plaintiff’s attorney crafted his argument to fit the specific concerns of the justices who would support our position. We eked out a 5-4 victory but when those justices left the Court, it was quietly overruled. It all depends.

Republicans pronounce that sympathy is no part of law, but then where is justice? They claim bound to follow only ancient dictionaries to tell us how two-century old language should be read now, assuming the ancients wouldn’t lift a finger about our problems. Or they claim to rely on precedent. But precedent isn’t self-justifying. We distinguish the authority of Brown v. Board of Education from the  horror of Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson because Brown accurately stated enduring values and the others did not. That’s a judgment about decency and has nothing to do with balls and strikes. This is not a baseball game; language interpreted without decency and humanity slanders the people who wrote and adopted it. Nominees hiding behind precedent hide their heartlessness behind smokescreens and deny the obvious, that their values, or lack of them, will determine how they see and shape the law.

Gorsuch could not tell you that because his sense of good and evil are far from what most Americans would accept. So he and his supporters rely on empty jargon about precedent. But judges exercise judgment about precedent just as they do about language. That’s why we need judges with good judgment, not judges claiming to be logicians with computers who derive answers automatically, unthinkingly and without reference to consequences. That refusal to care is the bastardization of law. When Justice Blackmun protested a decision that left no one  responsible for the helplessness of a small boy, he wrote “Poor Joshua” with understated eloquence. Poor Joshua indeed. Law, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, needs a heart.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 4, 2017.


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